As I mentioned in the first post of this week, contemporary ya lit transcends the time it was published. The stories inside the books capture a reader and speak truths that go well beyond a time period.
More than once I’ve been asked what I think are foundational contemporary ya books — that is, what books were published in the past that are still important and still make an impact. I’ve rounded up some of the titles I consider to be keystone contemporary ya titles, and I’m certain I’ve left some off. I’m going to be blunt in telling you what some of these are about, but I don’t feel the need to suggest they’re spoilers to the storyline. The books have been out long enough to talk about their content openly. Feel free to chime in if there’s something you’d like to have added to the list.
In no particular order, books that all advocates of ya lit should have on their shelves:
Anderson’s groundbreaking book about a rape victim published when I was 15. I didn’t find it for another year or two, but it’s a book I will never forget. Anderson’s main character had her innocence stolen from her unwillingly, and I remember reading this and despite how dark it was, that spoke to me loudly.
Eleven years later, this book still matters to ya lit. It was one of the first to tackle this issue, and Anderson’s contribution to the field through her other contemporary titles (Twisted, Catalyst, and Wintergirls in particular) only reemphasize her mark on the ya lit world.
Forever. . .by Judy Blume
I could list any book by Judy Blume, honestly, but this is the one I chose because I think it’s such an important book for teen girls especially. It’s a book about sex and sexuality and coming to terms with all of those feelings that emerge when you meet the first person you are in love with. Blume’s brutally honest with her story telling, and she’s not shy to delve into tough topics. This is the author who talks bluntly about masturbation in books like Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and about how friendships are growing and dynamic things in Just as Long as We’re Together. Sex, masturbation, friendship, changing bodies, family — they’re incredibly tough topics to handle in the way Blume does, and yet they’re the things that teen readers need and want to read about. The beauty of Blume is she’s timeless, and what she hits on is authentic and never delves into becoming an issue or becoming an adult talking to a teenager.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is another book that published the same year Anderson’s Speak did, and I remember this being the it book for a long time in high school. Charlie is an incredibly vulnerable male lead who journals about the tricky terrain of being the not-cool kid, falling in love for the first time, and — wait for it — drugs. I remember the fervor in which my friends and I read this book in high school to read about the drug life in particular, since it was something with which we were utterly unfamiliar. But being exposed to it in a safe environment, in a book, was important. It made sense of a world we’d only heard about on the news. It gave it more context and meaning.
If testament to how this is a foundational book in contemporary ya lit, consider that the movie is in production now. This book speaks to both male and female readers in its unflinching honesty and its heart.
The Pigman by Paul Zindel
Every time I see this book sit unread on a shelf, I cry a little bit on the inside. When I talk to someone who says they haven’t read this, I cry a little harder. I’m a huge advocate of killing darlings and weeding in the library, but this is one book that I will never personally weed and it’s one that is so prevalent and relevant even today.
It’s a story of friendship! Of being able to maintain a friendship with someone of the opposite sex! Of the innocence and childlike instincts that teenagers possess. As much as we push teens today to grow up and act mature, at their heart, they’re still kids. Then there is, of course, the story of respecting and understanding the world as it works and learning that all people contribute something to the world, even if they’re old and seem like they should just die already. The cross generational friendship here is so well done. And the tropes and themes explored here appear everywhere, as I believe I’ve mentioned in another review before.
Cut by Patricia McCormick
Ten years ago this book published. I didn’t read it until a couple years after it came out, though I knew what it was about. When I read it though, I was shocked with how honest it was with the issue of cutting, and how close to the heart it hit.
While other books have published on the topic of self mutilation, Cut will always be the first and the most impactful for me as a reader. It shocks me how few people today are familiar with this one or still see it as foundational as it was. McCormick was tackling things that were taboo ten years ago and are still taboo today. It helps this book is short and gets right to the point. Those who are most likely to be impacted by this story need that. Bonus that this book….isn’t about the issue but rather about a girl who has a challenge she needs to work through. It’s her story of overcoming cutting, not a story about cutting that features a girl.
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
2003: fewer than 10 years ago, it was still taboo to even talk about being gay. It was just a couple years before that, in 1998, that college student Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay.
This is a book I did not pick up until I took a ya lit class in graduate school in 2008, but the story presented still spoke to today’s world. Knowing you’re gay in high school is not easy. That’s why so many kids keep this stuff quiet. Russel wants to keep it quiet, but he also begs for a chance to talk to people going through the same stuff he is in school, despite the knowledge that the second he’s outed, he could easily become a target of relentless torment and ridicule. The book speaks to kids who experience this, and despite some of the weaker writing aspects, it’s the story that stands out and still sparks controversy today. But this is a champion of a book about self discovery and both self/social acceptance.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
I read this book as soon as it came out, back in 2005. Doesn’t seem that long ago, honestly, but this was another one of those books that was quite groundbreaking. It tackles the idea of the impact a friend can make on another, and the ways that dealing with death change you and make you understand the fragility/importance of life.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
I didn’t read this one until my ya lit class in grad school, and in the end, it didn’t make quite the impact on me I thought it would. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a huge role in contemporary ya lit nor that it’s not just as important as it was when it published more than 30 years ago. This is a story about social hierarchies, cliques, violence and intimidation among boys. The pain and resistance, the resilience, and the bravery to tackle these issues that still emerge in works today makes it a stand out classic.
This is one of the few books that I want to go back and revisit, now having read much more in the ya world than I had prior to reading it the first time. It’s one I think will resonate a little louder and longer the second time.
Girl by Blake Nelson
If there is one author who is constantly underrated as a major force in contemporary ya lit, it’s Blake Nelson. Girl came out in 1994. Seventeen years ago Nelson wrote this manifesto of a girl out of control and coming to terms with who she is and what she wants to be. Andrea Marr’s a freshman in high school and she learns through trial and error (emphasis there!) that falling in love isn’t always as easy as it seems, and neither are things like drugs and sex.
I picked this book up just this year, after falling in love with Nelson’s other books in the last couple of years, and the impact it made on me was huge. I wish I’d read this in high school! Andrea is a killer character, and she learns incredible lessons throughout. But the beauty of this story is it never once sets out to teach a lesson. The lessons are picked up through growing up and doing things like going to high school. Girl resonates in so much of today’s hard, edgy contemporary, including Ellen Hopkins, Amy Reed (Beautiful was so much a retelling of Girl for me!), and more. It’s an utterly exhausting book to read, but it is so foundational and so overlooked. And it was written by a guy who so perfectly captures being a 15-year-old girl.
Nine is my magic number. I could offer you more, but I feel like this captures a wide swath of important, foundational ya titles. I’d be curious whether you agree with my thoughts here and whether there are others you think should be added. I know I am missing huge titles that relate to race and diversity (though I believe many of these hit on class issues of diversity) and would be curious what I should include and read for myself on those issues.
For those of you who work with teens or are building your knowledge/expertise in ya lit, these are 9 titles you absolutely should not miss.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).